By cutting ties with Stonewall’s LGBT scheme, Ofcom is fuelling intolerance

To support the queer community isn’t a political or biased move, it’s one of equality – a sentiment that a so-called impartial regulator should be all for

Emma Flint
Wednesday 01 September 2021 11:47
<p>The Pride in London parade, 2019</p>

The Pride in London parade, 2019

On Thursday, Ofcom announced its withdrawal from Stonewall’s diversity scheme, The Diversity Champions. It was a decision that rocked the LGBT+ community, at a time when support for us seems to be continually waning.

In an official statement, Ofcom begins by saying how Stonewall laid the foundations for them to better support diversity, thus meaning they now feel more able to move forwards on their own.

As a standalone comment, while slightly alarming for an organisation to believe it has nothing else to learn, it doesn’t invoke much concern. However, partnered with the context of the remaining statement, Ofcom’s decision, certainly to me, quickly takes on a more worrying undertone.

“In recent months there has been significant scrutiny of some of Stonewall’s policy positions. In Ofcom’s case, we have considered whether our relationship with Stonewall poses a conflict or risk of perceived bias.”

They continue: “Stepping back from the Diversity Champions programme, in light of this, is the right thing to do. As the communications regulator, an important part of our responsibility is to ensure we remain impartial and independent at all times.”

By citing impartiality as a driving factor in its decision, Ofcom seemingly implies that supporting the queer community is, in some way, a statement of partiality. Yet, all that supporting any LGBT+ scheme or organisation does is demonstrate a dedication to equality for everyone.

Moreover, my view is that by removing themselves from such a prominent and vital scheme, Ofcom makes itself more partial than it claims to be. To support the queer community isn’t a political or biased move, it’s one of equality – a sentiment that a so-called impartial regulator should be all for.

When Dame Melanie Dawes, Ofcom’s chief executive, attended a parliamentary select committee last December, she seemed to propose that the BBC shouldn’t engage with the LGB Alliance. In quick response, Ofcom explained that Dawes’ statement by no means suggested broadcasters shouldn’t talk with gender critical organisations. Considering that the LGB Alliance has been criticised for transphobia, it was a troubling development. The LGB Alliance has denied that it is transphobic.

In one swift move, to me Ofcom seemed to suggest that intolerance, specifically that aimed at LGBT+ individuals, is acceptable in the name of fairness. But fairness, and indeed freedom of speech, doesn’t mean intolerance should be allowed to operate freely.

This then begs the question: why is standing up for diversity, in a public and transparent capacity deemed as such a biased declaration?

When asked about Ofcom’s decision, a Stonewall spokesperson said: “We respect Ofcom’s decision and will continue to work with them in their role as the UK’s communication regulator. It is sad, however, that involvement in a programme that supports an inclusive workplace for LGBT+ employees should be in any way regarded as an unimpartial act.”

The belief that supporting LGBT+ inclusivity is unimpartial is one that Ben Pechey, an LGBT+ activist and writer, shared with me.

“Impartiality is important,” they explain, “however, ensuring that an entire community is represented authentically and safely does not cause an organisation to be impartial. The main scrutiny has come from those who’re outside of the LGBTQIA+ community, suggesting that the decisions that have been made are not impartial, and instead, they’re biased through a lack of experience.”

To me, this analysis of Ofcom’s statement certainly holds weight when you consider its corporate responsibility page.

In its diversity and equality section, Ofcom proudly boasts how diversity is “fundamental to Ofcom achieving its organisational purposes”. It seems odd then, that to achieve that fundamental bedrock of equality they very publicly removed themselves from a well known LGBT+ charity diversity scheme.

To support minorities isn’t to be partial, but to truly embrace what equality stands for. By promoting the idea that this support expresses otherwise, is to turn equality into an unnecessarily divisive political tool. To me it seems, consequently, organisations like Ofcom further align themselves with right-wing sentimentality.

“The move shows how increasingly out of touch Ofcom are with the LGBT+ community, and how they’re instead sadly aligning with right-wing press who actively oppose and target them.’’ Shares Sarah O’Connell, host of the Sarah O’Connell Show.

The way in which right-wing sentiment is increasing throughout the UK is continuously fuelling the fires of intolerance. In the last several years, hate crimes towards the LGBT+ community have risen; between 2018 and 2019 alone, more than 14,000 crimes against LGBT+ people were reported to police.

Since then, discrimination has further sustained and embedded itself throughout the nation more fiercely than before. Arguably, this is due to the way in which right-wing sentiments continue to champion the interests of white, cis, middle/upper-class citizens; anyone who falls outside this bracket becomes secondary, whether institutions like Ofcom want to admit the truth of that or not.

“As with all shifts like this, it suggests to LGBT+ members that our needs and priorities are seen as a secondary requirement to businesses – especially when it comes to the cost of engaging in a programme.” Pechey adds: “It would make me doubt the strength of Ofcom’s decisions moving forward.”

Pechey’s concern is mirrored throughout much of the queer community. During a time when we’re targeted more frequently for being different, we double down our efforts to seek out support wherever we can. When official bodies turn away from us, it sends a message that we, the queer community, need to operate with caution.

It reminds us that we’re still deemed as outsiders by so many, especially those with authority and power.

That’s why charities like Stonewall are so important: they’re the foundation on which we grow and feel safe. They’re a beacon for equality, giving us hope when we desperately need it, as seen in the way they’ve tirelessly been working to help LGBT+ individuals in Afghanistan.

How can a charity which promotes such hope, such safety, be regarded as a gateway to partiality?

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